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Meet Dr. Ethan Lee, MSTP Associate Director for Graduate Education

Posted by on Wednesday, February 28, 2024 in Uncategorized .

by Sarah Reed (G3)

Dr. Ethan Lee, MD, PhD recently joined the MSTP Leadership Team as an Associate Director for Graduate Education. In this role, he will advise students on choosing a lab and support students throughout their graduate school years. Dr. Lee is a Professor in the departments of Cell and Developmental Biology, Pharmacology, and Cancer Biology. His lab studies the Wnt pathway, a critical signaling pathway involved in development that is also implicated in a variety of human diseases, including multiple types of cancer. 

Dr. Lee spent many of his early years in Norway, until his family returned to the United States. He finished high school in Houston, Texas and then received his BA in Biochemistry from Rice University. During undergrad, Dr. Lee’s goal was to pursue his MD. Over his summers, he worked in a fly lab. It was there that he discovered his love for research, and he continued on in the lab of Dr. Kathleen Beckingham to complete his senior thesis. During this time, he connected with a fellow student in the lab who introduced him to the idea of an MD/PhD. Both students matriculated into the MSTP at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School and ultimately got married. Their training paths have served as a model for the many possible careers available to MD/PhDs. 

At UT Southwestern, Dr. Lee rotated though multiple labs (including that of Nobel Prize winners Drs. Michael Brown and Joseph Goldstein) before deciding to join the lab of Dr. Alfred Gilman. In the Gilman lab, he studied the dissociation and activation of G-proteins. Both labs provided a blueprint for how to connect basic science with clinical observations and clinical outcomes. Shortly after Dr. Lee returned to his medical school training, Dr. Gilman won the Nobel Prize. With the mentorship and support of Dr. Gilman, Dr. Lee decided to continue his love of research and do a postdoc rather than apply for residency. His wife, Dr. Laura Lee, decided on a similar path. While she completed a postdoc at UC Berkeley (and then ultimately the Whitehead Institute at MIT), Dr. Lee moved to Harvard to do a postdoc with Dr. Marc Kirschner. Dr. Lee’s time in the Kirschner lab sparked his interest in Wnt signaling, where he used biochemistry and mathematical modeling to study the Wnt pathway. 

In starting to look for faculty positions, Dr. Lee prioritized institutions that would allow him and his wife to have a lab together and places that felt conducive to raising a family. They chose to move to Vanderbilt, which offered them both faculty positions with joint labs in the same department. They moved to Vanderbilt in 2004 and have been here since. In 2012, his wife decided that she wanted to return to clinical practice and completed her residency in pathology. She is now the head of the Molecular Diagnostic Lab at VUMC. Meanwhile, Dr. Lee had started a biotech company with friends and colleagues focused on developing therapeutics against the Wnt pathway. He is still involved in the company, and they are working towards starting their first clinical trial in the near future. 

Dr. Lee is excited to join the Leadership Team of the MSTP. He is particularly aware of the many possible paths that MD/PhD graduates can take through their careers and wants to support students as they figure out what is best for them. In addition to training many graduate students and postdocs, he has been involved in graduate student admissions. He believes that one of the unique draws of an MD/PhD is the flexibility that it gives graduates as they move through their careers. “There is no optimal career path,” he says. In his eyes, programs like ours give students “the tools to do something significant, no matter what they choose to pursue.” He has seen first-hand how his peers and colleagues have used their training to have an impact on research, clinical care, biotech, and more.